Happiness at Work Is Within Reach, And HR Can Grab It, Consultant Asserts

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

March 19 — Happiness at work is not “an oxymoron,” and HR professionals can help build it for themselves and other members of their organizations by devoting attention to specific practices, many of which have the backing of scientific research, according to Jocelyn S. Davis, co-founder and president of the Falls Church, Va.-based consulting firm NelsonHart LLC.

An example is the need to encourage employees to get more sleep, Davis said during a March 18 presentation sponsored by the Human Resource Association of the National Capital Area. “Whether or not our brain neurotransmitters have been refreshed overnight” is crucial to performance and engagement at work, she said.

Lack of sleep is “a global crisis, according to the World Health Organization,” Davis noted, adding that eight hours is recommended for adults, and it's better for employees to get the sleep, because they will be more productive, than to “push through” in staying up late to finish work.

Getting enough sleep is just one aspect of work-life balance, she said. “Think about yourself as if you were an organization with a strategic plan,” Davis suggested, and ask, “What do I need to accomplish? What's actually possible? Then flex that from time to time.”

Another aspect of happiness at work is what Davis called the “organizational system,” which includes the factors of the design of the job, the management system and the physical work environment, as well as considering “do you do well for your customers or clients, and do you do things you see as benefiting society as a whole?” The goal, she suggested, should be to connect one's job to social value “so you feel that what you're doing makes a difference.”

Promoting Employee Happiness 

Promoting employees' happiness at work requires HR to give detailed attention to many different factors, Davis said, such as how to deliver feedback. “We hear any negative thing three times more strongly than any positive thing,” she noted.

When supervisors give negative feedback, even if it's meant constructively, they have to be careful not to evoke a primitive fight-or-flight reaction in the employee, Davis said. Using positive feedback as a “wrapper” around negative comments doesn't work, she suggested; instead, “give it straight.”

As for positive feedback, Davis offered the image of sunflowers turning to follow the sun. “Think about praise as the sun to the sunflower,” she said, adding, “We do work for money, but we do it better for praise.” Praise should be detailed and specific, she said. “The more senior you are, the more you need it, because the less you get it,” Davis commented.

Another aspect of the pursuit of employees' happiness is setting goals appropriately, she said. “Goals should be challenging but incremental enough that you can see progress,” Davis said. “If the goal is perceived as ridiculously un-accessible, people will eventually give up.” On the other hand, she said, “when you change how the goal is articulated, you can make it more attainable.”

Finding Motivation

The happy employee is well motivated by definition, and motivation is composed of such elements as the feeling of having autonomy, Davis said. Complete autonomy isn't always possible in a work environment, she said, so supervisors should try to offer at least some choices in how their subordinates do their jobs, and if even that isn't possible, at least the supervisor should offer an explanation of why, such as “it has to be done this way because it's politically sensitive and I know you can understand that.”

Another aspect of motivation is the employee's relationships, Davis said. She asserted that Gallup Poll has an excellent question: whether the employee has a best friend at work. “The more positive the answer to that, the more likely you are to be motivated,” Davis said. The best friend at work doesn't have to be a romantic or social friend, she said, and instead could be a mentor. “We are more motivated the more we are affiliated with people at work,” Davis said.

She offered other tips for creating happiness at work, including:

• “We have a need for authenticity and use of our strengths.”

• “The science supports that we want to identify our weaknesses and manage them; they're not likely to change.” (This doesn't include remediable skill deficits.)

• At the same time, “we need to capitalize on our strengths.”

• “If you want people to be creative, you need to create a net positive emotional environment.”

• “If you can perceive stress as a challenge not a burden, it helps performance.”


To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bna.com